Why “WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?” is the wrong question

[Today’s guest post  is from Jeannie Prinsen, one of my favorite people to read on the internet. ]

“What would Jesus do?” We’ve all heard this question. We’ve seen the “WWJD” bracelets and key chains.

But sometimes I wonder how helpful a question it is – especially when we turn “what Jesus would do” into “what we should do.”

It’s true that when Jesus walked this earth as a man, he called people to follow him – implying that they’d be doing at least some of what he did. When he knelt to wash his disciples’ feet, he said, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” – showing that imitation was an important part of a disciple’s calling.

Many other New Testament passages reinforce this idea that we should do as Jesus does:

  • The apostle Peter says Jesus left us an example “to follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
  • Paul calls himself an imitator of Jesus (I Corinthians 11:1).
  • John says we should “walk in the same manner as [Jesus] walked” (I John 2:6).

So if we are Christians who want to grow spiritually and have an impact on our world, we should ask “What would Jesus do?” and then try to live that out – right?

To be honest, I’m not so sure – and my hesitation comes mostly from the way we sometimes apply this concept.

Often we choose episodes from the Gospels in which Jesus interacts with a particular person, and we try to use that distinctive, unique encounter as a template for how we should speak to those we meet. But I wonder if we’re sometimes more interested in using Jesus’ words to justify our own frustrations and preferences than in deeply understanding why he might have done or said something.

“Jesus did turn over tables in the temple” … so we’re allowed to get angry and throw things sometimes too, aren’t we?

“Jesus told the woman caught in adultery that he didn’t condemn her, but he also told her to go and sin no more … and didn’t he also tell the man he’d healed, ‘Sin no more in case something worse happens to you’” … so we should be sure the words of grace we say to people are accompanied by admonitions to improve behaviour.

“Jesus did tell the Samaritan woman that he knew she’d been married five times and was now living with a man who wasn’t her husband” … so that must mean it’s OK to tell others that we’re aware of their questionable lifestyle choices. (Leaving aside the fact that the Bible doesn’t actually say why the woman had been married 5 times or was living in an extramarital relationship: maybe instead of being the harlot she’s so often portrayed as, she was actually more sinned-against than sinning.)

This approach bothers me for a couple of reasons. One is that we can end up simply using these episodes in the Gospels as manuals for dealing with people. I heard myself using that very phrase – “dealing with people” – recently, and I was struck by how impersonal and project-oriented it sounded. The life-changing stories of Jesus shouldn’t be reduced to a set of techniques for confronting or converting people.

But the main reason I find these readings problematic is that when we jump straight into the role of being Jesus in these stories, we miss out on being ourselves: ordinary people encountering Jesus.

When I put myself in the place of the woman the crowd condemned, I see how Jesus reaches out to me to offer compassion and shalom.

When I put myself in the place of the people who wanted to stone the woman to death, and I hear Jesus say “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” I see my own judgmental assumptions about others, and I marvel at Jesus’ wisdom, forbearance, and love – even for the self-righteous.

When I put myself in the Samaritan woman’s place, I encounter truth and grace, fully embodied in Jesus, and I feel known, seen, and endowed with dignity.

If I try too hard to be Jesus, I risk focusing too much on communication skills and results. The truth is, I’m not Jesus. I’m just me: just as weak and needy as the people who came to Jesus for help and healing, and just as loved.

So instead of asking “What would Jesus do?” and working hard to do it, I’m asking, “Jesus, what are You saying to me through these words of Scripture, these encounters with ordinary people?” And if that involves becoming more like Jesus – as I trust it will – let that be a work He does in me, not a strategy. Not a method, but an abundant life.


Jeannie Prinsen is an online writing instructor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where she co-created and currently teaches a course called Fundamentals of Academic Essay-Writing which she describes as “no more, or less, exciting than it sounds.” She’s also a gifted communicator who blogs about faith and family and writing at Little House on the Circle. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook, too.


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12 Responses to Why “WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?” is the wrong question

  1. Tim says:

    “… when we jump straight into the role of being Jesus in these stories, we miss out on being ourselves: ordinary people encountering Jesus.”

    That’s truly problematic, Jeannie. I’ve been bothered by WWJD for decades and not been able to put my finger on why. Thanks for the guest post and sharing this with the readers here.

  2. Lisa Deam says:

    Thank you for this, Jeannie! I’ve always kind of disliked the WWJD question, and you helped me think through why that is! Does that mean I don’t have ask WWJD when I’m staring at a plate of broccoli?

  3. E.L. Dalke says:

    Interesting thoughts here. A friend and I were once discussing this same issue and the context from which modern Christianity has stolen it (the book In His Steps, pub. 1896). My friend aptly said the book makes a lot more sense when we realize that when it was written “church was Facebook.” It’s so easy to take everything out of context–and that becomes dangerous to our faith.

    • Tim says:

      I remember reading In His Steps long before WWJD became a thing. I recall the book seeming much more reasonable in its approach than WWJD turned out to be.

      • Exactly!! I was contemplating posting that same response below. Thank you for saying that. Sheldon’s dealing with the question is actually quite challenging. In stark contrast to that, the WWJD movement always struck me as little more than faddish, kind of like wearing gaudy crosses while singing godless lyrics is today.

    • That is so interesting. And true: context is so important, whether we’re reading the Bible itself or a spiritual book.

  4. I like your take on the question “What Would Jesus Do?” and I’m thinking that perhaps it should be reworded as “What would Jesus do FIRST?” According to the gospels, He spent a lot of time in prayer. If we as Christians did that first, then I think we’d have a lot better chance of pleasing God in what we do.

    • That’s a very good point. Then it wouldn’t be strictly a matter of imitating Jesus’ specific actions (which might not be at all right for us), but of imitating his attitude, which was always one of communion with the Father and acting out of that.

  5. damonjgray says:

    My tendency is less to ask “What would Jesus do,” because I’m not sure I would come up with the correct answer, and more to ask, “What does Jesus want me to do?” But again, I suspect I often miss the mark with that.

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